“Yes, teacher! I love to sing! La-la-laaa! Let’s sing ‘The Hokey Sharkey’”!
“Sorry, Clark. Here is our song.”
“‘If You’re Happy and you Know It’? Great song!”
from Clark the Shark and School Sing
written by Bruce Hale
illustrated by Guy Francis
Harper Alley, 2021
When my older granddaughter was a baby, I volunteered to watch her during the week of in-service before my daughter and son-in-law started their new school year.
My granddaughter loved to listen to music on the family’s CD player and even knew which buttons to push to make it work. She had her favorite songs, too. Even though she was too little to really sing along, her face lit up with one of those big baby grins, and she toddled all about in a wonky kind of dance.
After breakfast on maybe the third or fourth day, I was ready to play. I popped her favorite CD in the slot for background music. My reward was a loud “NO, NO!” I continued (oblivious, but enthusiastic) asking her which button to push. She started to cry. No music that morning. No music after naptime, either. My daughter shrugged an I-don’t-know answer to my why- doesn’t-she-want-her-music question.
A few days after I got home, I understood. I was feeding my baby granddaughter earworms! The tunes were still swimming in my head, so why wouldn’t they swimming in hers, too? She just couldn’t tell me.
Earworms really are a thing. The scientific name is Involuntary Musical Imagery INMI. Research cited on The Kennedy Center’s website claims that nine out of 10 of us experience earworms at least once a week. They can last hours, days, or weeks. According to neurologist Oliver Sacks, [An earworm] "is a special form of involuntary musical imagery which is out of control and can become quite unpleasant and intrusive.”
Researchers at Dartmouth College discovered that the auditory cortex is the part of our brains where earworms “live.” It is just as active when we imagine a tune as when we hear it in person or on the radio (or tv or other listening device).
The parts of our brains that recognize emotions and help us form memories are also involved in creating earworms. Our ability to retain melodies is incredibly strong. Earworms can be helpful when we need to remember facts, phone numbers, or grocery lists. Just sing them to a familiar tune.
My sister’s history teacher sang the American presidents to “Rock-a-Bye-Baby.” One syllable stood for one term, two syllables, two terms. I can still get up to Grover Cleveland’s first term and I didn’t even take the class! (If you try it, be aware. James Garfield only served for six months before he died in office. His initial “G” gets hooked onto Chester A. Arthur to create “GArthur.”)
Kelly Jakubowski, Assistant Professor in Music Psychology at Durham University (UK), compared 100 songs people identified as earworms with 100 songs that they did not. She found common earworm characteristics. An upbeat tempo is one. A simple, familiar melody like a nursery rhyme combined with unique pitch intervals is another.
Earworms are usually songs that get lots of “air-play.” We hear them more often, so they stick with us. But that’s not the only way a song turns into a loop. Sometimes lyrics explore a meaningful insight. Or a song reminds us of an experience (good or not so good), or keenly expresses our thoughts.
People who place a high value on the importance of music are more prone to earworms. Open-minded people, since they are more likely to think about or study an idea before they accept or reject it, are usually more suggestible and so are more likely to experience lots of earworms, or experience them for a longer duration.
Even though most of us experience this phenomenon, only one-third of us are bothered by the experience or even notice it. If earworms interfere with a person’s daily life (cause extreme loss of focus or interrupt normal sleep patterns) they could be the manifestation of Obsessive-Compulsion Disorder and can actually be treated with medicine and psychotherapy. Called “stuck-song-syndrome” it is exceedingly rare. Only 100 cases have been recorded worldwide.
If you are bothered by a loop going round and round, you can try one of these methods that some of Ms. Jakubowski’s test subjects have recommended.
- Listen to the song the whole way through. Coming to completion may stop the loop.
- Try to replace it with a song you like. One annoying piece could just replace another, though.
- Ignore it. Hmmm. Ever try to NOT think of a white elephant (or a chartreuse donkey)?
- Chew gum, vigorously. This advice is from C. Philip Beaman, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at the Centre for Cognition Research and the School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading, U.K.
- Do something engaging. Earworms are most common when we’re bored or not thinking of anything specific.
-—stay curious! (and hum along to the song in your heart!)